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Researchers to study poplar tree as model biomass crop


BLACKSBURG, Va., July 2, 2007 – Virginia Tech researchers have received $1.2 million to study protein-protein interactions associated with biomass production in poplar wood. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) jointly selected the Virginia Tech project and 10 others for awards totaling $8.3 million for biofuel research that may increase the availability and use of alternative fuels.

“Poplar is a model biomass crop,” said Eric Beers, associate professor of horticulture in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the project’s principal investigator. “If we can identify the protein-protein interaction networks associated with its woody tissues, it will give us a more detailed understanding of how plants produce their biomass – their genomics and the molecular biology of biomass production. This will ultimately contribute to strategies for improving biomass crops.”

Proteins are the molecular machines required for the production of plant cell walls. To function, proteins must interact with other proteins, but researchers know little about the protein-protein interactions that occur during the process of wood formation. Protein identification and quantification research at Virginia Tech has been enhanced by new mass spectrometry equipment purchased with funds from the Commonwealth Research Initiative.

“This is basic research that could conceivably make the use of poplar wood as a biomass crop more amenable to large-scale production and economically feasible,” Beers said.

Amy Brunner, associate professor of forestry in the College of Natural Resources, will use her expertise in poplar genomics to study a subset of the protein interactions directly in poplar trees and to incorporate results with what scientists know about gene expression and gene function within poplar wood. She has already identified approximately 250 poplar genes specifically associated with wood formation that will be the focus of this project. This is known as the poplar biomass gene set.

In addition, Allan Dickerman, assistant professor at the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute, will collect data and employ advanced techniques of computational biology to map protein-protein interactions. These maps reveal functional clusters of protein interactions that will give scientists visual clues about the molecular biology of poplar cell wall-related biomass production.

“These research projects build upon DOE’s strategic investments in genomics and biotechnology and strengthen our commitment to developing a robust bioenergy future vital to America’s energy and economic security,” said U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman when making the grant announcement. The DOE is funding the Virginia Tech project.

In 2006, DOE and USDA began funding fundamental research in biomass genomics to provide a scientific foundation to facilitate and accelerate the use of woody plant tissue for bioenergy and biofuels. New research projects on cordgrass, rice, switchgrass, sorghum, poplar, and perennial grasses join last year’s portfolio of research on poplar, alfalfa, sorghum, and wheat.

Other universities and research centers that received this second round of awards include the University of Minnesota, South Dakota State University, Mississippi State University, University of Georgia, University of Florida, University of Delaware, USDA Agricultural Research Service Western Regional Research Center, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Visit the DOE Office of Science website for more information about the Virginia Tech grant and the other research projects that received awards.

Founded in 1872 as a land-grant college, Virginia Tech is the most comprehensive university in the Commonwealth of Virginia and is among the top research universities in the nation. Today, Virginia Tech’s eight colleges are dedicated to quality, innovation, and results through teaching, research, and outreach activities. At its 2,600-acre main campus located in Blacksburg and other campus centers in Northern Virginia, Southwest Virginia, Hampton Roads, Richmond, and Roanoke, Virginia Tech enrolls more than 28,000 undergraduate and graduate students from all 50 states and more than 100 countries in 180 academic degree programs.